The public need a say on where power will lie after Brexit

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 18th January 2017

So Theresa May has fleshed out her plans for Britain leaving the EU and becoming an independent self-governing nation.  With more detail emerging about the economic plan, it’s time to look at the democratic implications.

Serious thinking about democracy can all too often get left behind and the public shut out of these debates, as we’ve seen with English devolution. How our democracy actually takes shape after Brexit goes beyond the two year window of negotiations, and has to mean the public having a strong say. After all, it would be ironic given the strong focus on ‘where power lies’ during the campaign (summed up in the powerful slogan ‘take back control’) if this wasn’t a strong focus.

Theresa May says the vote was about restoring parliamentary democracy by bringing back sovereignty to UK Parliament. This is uncontroversial – after all, many identified the issue of laws ‘being made in Brussels’ as part of a more general unease. But it is only part of the picture. The transfer will take place at the same time as the on-going transfer of powers from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and NI, as well as devolution within England. In other words, at a time of power shifting between and within nations of the UK – and the obvious ramifications around our Union.

The remoteness people feel about institutions is also about the distance from Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd, but it also knitted into an anti-establishment feeling that has been growing. So now is an opportunity to capitalise on the positive political interest stimulated by the vote, and convert it into a sustainable mode of political engagement – with truly powerful citizens.

So the first question is this: what is the public role in shaping the form of Brexit?

The referendum should be the beginning, not the end, of public involvement on all this. True, the government is in a difficult position given multiple interpretations.  And it is always a challenge to get a blueprint – after all, referendums are binary – and this case followed a short four month campaign with both sides offering a wide range of potential desired outcomes. Now, we are left with highly contested territory when it comes to the form of Brexit. Citizens’ assemblies – representative gatherings of people who are given the time and information to properly discuss and debate the issues in light of the facts – can be a good way of dealing with this, and for citizens to face up to the trade-offs that government is grappling with.

The second question is this: where will the powers ‘repatriated’ from Europe actually go? Theresa May confirmed that a Great Repeal Bill will bring all the powers the EU currently holds back to the UK. But given that we are a multi-national democracy, and one with a rightful focus on devolution, where will these powers actually be given to?

The PM said that ‘leaving the European Union will mean that our laws will be made in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast’. So it seems only right that the laws related to powers already devolved to the nations – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – should ‘go’ there. And indeed Mrs May suggested as much. But could we go further? Is this a chance to rethink Britain’s constitutional future as an increasingly diverse and semi-federal union?

We can learn from local devolution on this question. The public haven’t had a strong role – and there is some evidence of devolution deals unravelling, perhaps partly as a result. So learning from what happens when powers are transferred without consulting on what they’re for has to be considered.

The ‘where’ and ‘how’ of political power is sometimes just as important as the ‘what’. And that means Brexit is a great opportunity to involve the public in a conversation about where power lies within the UK.

So the final question becomes this: is it time we clarified what kind of democracy we are? Britain is seeing more and more referendums. We therefore have to ask: how are different forms of democracy going to work alongside each other? It is time we had a clear plan for what happens after referendums – what Parliament’s role will be, what public consultation there’ll be on the next steps, and so on?

It’s looking like referendums have become part of our institutional settlement – which is interesting, because it suggests direct democracy has been latched onto an essentially representative democratic model – with the resulting lack of clarity over Parliament’s role meaning we’ve seen the most high profile involvement of the judiciary in these decisions since the Supreme Court was created.

We are muddling through all of this. And how we handle it could affect many other decisions. As well as a clearer framework for future votes, a citizens’ assembly could provide a practical way to trial the need for deliberation and nuance that has to follow any binary ‘yes/no’ ballot.

There are some big democratic questions we’re going to come across over the next couple of years. Getting to the bottom of them might be difficult, but one thing’s clear: all of us should be involved in answering these questions.

Our next two years, and potentially much longer than that, will be dominated by exit negotiations. Where power lies – for all of us as citizens – deserves every bit as much attention.

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